War on Poverty at 50

January 6th, 2014 at 2:13 pm

There’s a lot of ink ones and zeros being spilt on this week’s 50-year anniversary of President Johnson’s War on Poverty.

–My analysis at the NYT Economix blog.

–Some of my CBPP colleagues have put together a compelling and readable chart book on the topic.

–My concluding paragraphs:

So, collecting all of these facts, the answer to the question posed above [have we won or lost the war on poverty?] is that it’s the wrong question, in that its inherent win/loss framing precludes a nuanced analysis of the play between many disparate factors.  The data clearly show that anti-poverty policies have been effective, but they’ve had to work harder in the face of increasing economic challenges facing low-income families.  We could try to push the safety net further, but the politics aren’t there, to say the least.  Moreover, unless we do more to deal with the underlying structural problems in the economy that are increasing poverty — especially the lack of decently paying jobs, which I link closely to the absence of full employment — we’ll have to increasingly ratchet up government support year after year.

The American safety net is actively helping millions of economically disadvantaged families, and we should protect and improve it.  But the best way to help it — and more importantly, the poor themselves — is to strengthen the underlying economy in ways that will take some of the pressure off of what has, over the last 50 years, become an effective set of anti-poverty social policies.

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10 comments in reply to "War on Poverty at 50"

  1. Dave says:

    I saw your brief appearance in the movie, “Death by China”. I highly recommend the movie.

    I think even the best economists are struggling with an explanation for why China has increased US poverty outside of the currency manipulation. Unfortunately, to see the truth is to condemn free trade. There is a lot of talk about fair trade, but I’d challenge anyone to define that.

    We’ve shot ourselves in the foot. Clinton did much of it through neoliberal ideas of free trade.

    We’re importing an authoritarian, poverty-stricken system. Why did they believe we would spread democracy to China when so many wealth Americans, the ones that control our government, don’t even believe in democracy?

    I consider the move a must view.

    • jeff says:

      The U.S. policy elite has no idea what to do with China. A huge number of businesses covet access to their markets and need them to grow. Although many (especially in Finance) are nearly shut out or only nominally involved.

      So much of U.S. business has a stake in China growing. But a China that continues to grow at 7% a year is going to dominate East Asia and push the U.S. out geo-politically. It’s only matter of time. The U.S. is already wavering with their alliance to Japan, or that is sure how it’s perceived in Asia.

      All of this is coming to a head, or at least the FT thinks so (see their recent WW1 editorial),

  2. Colin says:


    I’m curious — if you think that government programs help reduce poverty, how do you explain the much steeper decline in the poverty rate pre-Great Society than post-Great Society? Interested in your interpretation, thanks:


    • Jared Bernstein says:

      That link didn’t seem to work for me.

      I don’t ‘think’ that gov’t programs help…the evidence in the divergence of the two top lines in the figure in the NYT post shows this to be the case.

      As for the 60s, part of that was Great Society stuff, no–certainly the expansion of Soc Security played a big role in poverty reduction. But I’d bet the bigger factor was the full employment job market and broadly shared growth across the income spectrum in those years.

      • Colin says:

        Sorry about that, strange for the link. Can you try this?


        If the poverty reduction is due to Social Security, wouldn’t this have already mostly played itself out in the 1930s/40s in the immediate aftermath of its introduction? Why would this be a factor in, say, 1960? Unclear on this point.

        BTW, when I click on your Economix blog post analysis link it actually takes me here:


        Lastly, while government programs can reduce poverty, isn’t the better question their net impact? If the taxation used to fund these programs slows the economy — and you concede a full job market is a big factor in reducing poverty — can’t it be negative? Also curious how you interpret the correlation between welfare reform and a reduced social safety net in the 1990s with the drop in the poverty rate.

        Appreciate the response.

        • Colin says:

          BTW, cutting and pasting that link I posted rather than clicking on it should do the trick.

        • Jared Bernstein says:

          I fixed the link–thnx. All good questions above (except Soc Sec, which in the NYT piece I point out was expanded–raised benefits considerably–in the 1960s). I’ll try to get to them.

          • Colin says:

            Thanks and look forward to the response. Still a bit unclear on SS, however. The drop in poverty that I mentioned took place during the 50s, so unclear how a boost to SS in the 60s related to poverty reduction.

          • Jared Bernstein says:

            The official poverty data start in 1959…where are you getting the 50s data??

  3. jeff says:

    How come no one includes the prison population in these discussions ? Our incarceration rate has soared since the 60’s and is the highest in the world except maybe North Korea.

    You have to include prisoners in these numbers somewhere, because it sure is a way to hide a lot of the poor.